Tuesday, May 30, 2017

True Educational Leadership

In my fourteen years of teaching I've worked for four principals. One I try not to think about much, but I have been very lucky to work for the other three. I admire each of them as leaders, and know that much of my teaching has been shaped by their leadership.

My most recent principal announced he was leaving us a few weeks ago. I was stunned. He opened our school five years ago. He led us to becoming the first recipient of the National DuFour award. Through his leadership we ended up on the front page of Education Weekly. Educators from around the world travel to our school to observe us at work, in the structure he set up. The school has never existed without him.

Of all the principals I have worked for, he is the one who has impacted my educational philosophy the most. When I first came to our school I was not sure of how much I bought into the Professional Learning Community (PLC) theory. I was skeptical, made worse by the fact that I was on the intellectual disability team and as a new school we were struggling to figure out how to include my team into the PLC process. I've written before about how my opinion of the PLC process changed over time. I went from being skeptical to becoming a true believer. Now, it seems like a crime to have schools operate in any other way.

Beyond coming to be an advocate for the PLC process, my principal also pushed my thinking about education. He constantly challenged our special education team to think about what special education is. What is the purpose behind special education? Why do we put students into special education? What do we do with them once we put them there? Why does a child need a label? What do we do differently for a child once they are in the special education system? Every Wednesday, when we sat in special education eligibility meetings, he pushed us to answer these questions. I know there were times when he knew how I would answer, but he asked anyway. He never wanted us to blindly sign off on a child needing special education services unless we had fully considered the whole child, and whether or not he or she would truly benefit from these services. No child would get pushed through just because. He made our work harder, but he made our work better.

These questions changed how I thought about special education. They made me look beyond my own beliefs, and see that sometimes, despite our best intentions, we do lower our expectations for a child once they are in the special education system. That the IQ number does not always accurately reflect a child's ability, and that we keep pushing, despite what any test says.

In times of conflict, crisis, or uncertainty, he never took the party line. Not the county's party line, or even the school's. He did not care how anything has been done in the past, or how we did it last week. Every decision we ever brought to him he questioned, considered, and then had us justify our thinking. We cannot make lazy decisions, or ones based on institutional knowledge.

One of the rules at my school is that we are not allowed to use acronyms. I want you to spend the next day trying not to use any acronyms. That means you can't say the HOV lane. Take IEP, NOVA, LRE, FCPS, or any other familiar acronyms out of your vocabulary. It's harder than you think! His constant line is "clarity proceeds competence." If not everyone at the table knows what you are talking about, then communication has eroded and you have a problem. He pushes us to be as clear as possible in our language. While I appreciate the theory, it is hard, especially in special education. And frustrating, when you are already nervous in speaking in front of a group, and you utter an acronym by accident and then get called out.

But this practice makes us better. It catches us from using phrases in front of parents that they don't understand - or even phrases general education educators don't understand and are afraid to ask. This also creates a culture of feeling comfortable enough to ask for clarification when one is confused - even in a large meeting.

My principal has changed how I see education. He's challenged the idea of the effectiveness of the individual teacher, working in isolation. He's challenged the idea of why and how we educate children. He's changed my focus in how I see educational outcomes of students with disabilities. Every teacher believes they have high expectations for all children, but he's made me realize that when we say those simple words we often are just doing lip service. If we are truly honest we take away all excuses we may have for a child, we erase our knowledge of anything going on at home, and we truly look only at the child in front of us at that moment.

He taught me that high expectations mean high expectations for all. The goal for every child is to make a year to a year and a half's growth, no matter where they are currently performing or what is going on in their lives. Having an IEP or speaking another language is not an excuse for a child to not make that progress. And as teachers, we need to work together as a team to get the child there, in any way possible.

I've joked that my first four years at this school school was an equivalent in a graduate degree into the PLC process. I was skeptical of the process when I began there, and not even aware of how much I had to learn. After five years I am stunned at my own transformation as an educator. I went from skeptical to full-believer.

Working for him these last five years was an honor, and I cannot imagine where I would be now as an educator if I had not worked at his school. While I cannot image the school without his leadership, I know that how he challenged and changed our thinking will stay with the school even after he leaves. The field always needs someone to constantly push us to look beyond ourselves, and although I will miss him, I know his move is a benefit to the field of education itself.

Sunday, May 28, 2017


It's official - I'm DIR/Floortime certified! 

Don't know what DIR/Floortime is? Until a few years ago, I didn't either. I was sitting in a meeting, listening to people discuss whether or not a child had autism, when the psychologist said - "Oh, he does, he just had DIR/Floortime when he was young."

What? What is that? I'd never heard of this intervention. How is it possible that 1) He received an intervention that worked so well that now a roomful of professionals cannot decide whether or not he has autism. 2) If this intervention is so effective, why have I not heard of it?

I immediately turned to my good friend Google, which introduced me to Dr. Stanley Greenspan, and directed me toward the certification path. The DIR stands for Developmental, Individual, Relationship. This therapy is a way to connect with children through considering their developmental needs, their individual differences, and their relationship to their environment. You connect to a child by following their lead, often through play, (or at least that is what I originally thought). While it is typically a therapy used with children with autism, it can also be used anyone.

I started reading Greenspan's work, and I took one on-line class over the summer a few years ago. I thought I understood the concept pretty well. It made sense to me, so this winter I decided to start the certification process.

The first class was short, and repeated much of the same information I'd read in Greenspan's books. I quickly enrolled in the second class, excited to get started. It was this class that allows for the basic certification. It is a pass/fail class, and when I enrolled I excitedly that it would be a simple way to get my certification. After all, I thought I had a good understanding of the therapy already.

I was wrong. So wrong. I understood the words used to describe Floortime, but I really had no idea what I was talking about - yet. This class, to be quite honest, kicked my butt.

Although I was very familiar with all of the words being used, I didn't actually know their definition through a Floortime lense. It was like being in a foreign country and thinking you understand the language, only to quickly learn you thought you asked to go to the bathroom and you were directed to the swimming pool.

From a meta-cognitive standpoint, it was a fascinating experience. The last time I struggled this much with learning something was my computer science course during college. But, being far more motivated to learn Floortime than I was HTML, I threw myself into this course. The more I realized how much I did not understood Floortime, the more I was determined to learn it, and do it well. I watched the videos my classmates presented and saw the progress kids made in the short, eight minute video clips. Then, I saw the sparks in some of the children I work with. When I started using Floortime techniques with them, I saw the shift. It was remarkable. Magic. Except not magic - science.

But to learn Floortime, I had to unlearn or at least shelve any behaviorist approaches I'd relied on before. In reflecting on my own teaching, I realized that much of what I do, much of what any of us do in the schools, is from a behaviorist model. In order to learn Floortime I had to stop myself from my previous work and start looking at children with new eyes. Behaviors or individual differences I had overlooked before because I didn't consider important, now are essential to understanding the child and how to interact. I find myself watching every child with "DIR eyes" as my mentor calls it.

Who knew that learning to play effectively would be so difficult? I had no idea when I started this process, and yet now I have a whole new understanding of just how powerful peek-a-boo is.

Now that I'm more comfortable with Floortime, I hope to be writing about it more, and hopefully I can explain it here. More importantly, I am ridiculously excited to be officially allowed to practice it. My struggle this winter and spring paid off.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Age Appropriate Texts - Finding My People!

In the large vender hall of the CEC conference I spied the sign “No Baby Books for Teens” across the room. I quickly realized that I had found my people.

I’ve blogged about the difficulties of finding ageappropriate texts for years now. There is nothing more disheartening then having a fifth grader at a crucial turning point in making huge gains in reading – only to have nothing to hand him except a book with cartoon characters of a sweet turtle and a frog. I am constantly on the search for age appropriate guided reading books, and have become so frustrated with the dirth of materials available that I’d even started to write my own.
But here – in this large booth were racks of books written for high schoolers reading at lower levels. It made me tear up. Someone is listening.

Well, almost listening. I am still looking for books written for fifth graders who are reading on kindergarten to early first grade level. But people, I think we are moving in the right direction.
A Saddle Back rep found me signing happily as a thumbed through titles. I was impressed by the older looking text and pictures, along with the simple language. The rep explained to me that many of the books were written in pairs so that they each had one fiction and one nonfiction corresponding text.

Many of the books are written for high schoolers who just entered the country. The fiction books cover topics that new immigrants may struggle with (fitting in, adapting), while the nonfiction books may cover relevant topics like how to dress for the weather. This is a particular problem for students coming from warm climates who move to Minnesota. However, he said that he was getting feedback from teachers who teach high schoolers with intellectual disabilities. These teachers love the texts because they essentially become social stories that children with intellectual disabilities can read to themselves. These students also need direct instruction on how to dress for the weather each morning, even if they have lived in this climate their whole lives.

The rep sent me away with a few copies to try out with my students. He warned me that many of his texts are written with high schoolers in mind, and so they deal with high school appropriate concepts in first grade language. (This was a big warning to NOT use some of the texts with fifth graders). The texts he sent me with were fifth grade appropriate. I had one of my current clients read one and he loved it. The text was below his reading level, but it is rare he is able to experience reading something easy that is also interesting. It was a great opportunity for us to work on reading comprehension.

So often we just teach decoding to children with learning disabilities. We become so focused on their deficits that we forget the reason we read - to comprehend and gain meaning from those swiggly lines on the page. Without meaning there is no point behind reading.